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When you were a child, your parents helped you make smart decisions about drugs and alcohol. You couldn’t use openly, and if you got caught, you were grounded (or worse). If you grew into adulthood without developing an addiction, you owe your parents a lot.
It’s time to repay that debt.
Older adults can — and often do — develop addictions. Treatment helps them to recover, but they may never seek out the help they need. You can change that. Your loving conversation could help you regain the parent you’re losing due to addiction.
Older Adults and Drug Abuse Patterns
Your parents are unique, and you may feel as though you know them intimately. Seeing them slide into addictive patterns can fill you with a sense of disappointment or rage. That’s understandable, but it’s also not helpful.
To rescue the people you love, you must know more about why they use. And it’s useful to know that you’re not alone.
Your parents face challenges with each candle they add to their birthday cakes. They may feel:
- Isolated. How many funerals has your parent attended in the last year? Each celebration of life means one less friend or loved one your parent can lean on.
- Cash-strapped. Social Security checks may not cover every bill that appears in the mailbox. As debt mounts and no income appears, the problem grows.
- Painful. Sore joints, aching heads, and damaged teeth can be excruciating. Self-medicating with substances can seem like a good solution.
- Uncomfortable. The shift from parent to grandparent to great-grandparent isn’t easy for some people. Each role has unique associated tasks. Even if your parents don’t want to change, the outside world will force them to.
Older adults can use any substance. Pain pills, marijuana, and prescription mood enhancers could all be on your parent’s shopping list. But researchers say alcohol is the drug of choice among this age group.
About 22 percent of older adults have alcohol issues, researchers say, but they often go unnoticed. Smaller servings have a bigger impact as organs and metabolisms shift with age. If you’re counting drinks, you may believe your parents don’t take in too much. But when each sip packs a bigger punch every year, the issue starts to become clear.
Often, older adults with substance abuse issues were young people who drank too much or used too many drugs, researchers say. It’s rare for an older adult to spontaneously develop a problem when there was none before.
That means your parents might have decades of bad habits to break, and the consequences are just catching up with them. They will need your help to turn the corner and start a new life.
What Does Substance Abuse Look Like?
If your parent has been drinking or drugging for years, you probably know what it looks like. You’ve washed empty glasses and emptied full ashtrays. These tasks may have been your childhood chores.
But when does everyday use morph into something more sinister?
Anytime substances change the way a person thinks or feels, it’s reasonable to be concerned. But when you see symptoms like this, it’s time to take action:
- Changed appearance: Deep bruises, rumpled clothes, and shaking hands could all have their roots in addictive substances.
- Unusual complaints: Frequent conversations about insomnia and mentions of blackouts could be triggered by addictions.
- Sneaky behavior: Hiding bottles, pills, or powders could all signal substance abuse. Your parent could also refuse to talk about financial matters.
- Mental health challenges: Irritability, grouchiness, and forgetfulness could all stem from addictive substances. What Treatment Types Work?
Treatment works in older adults. It’s not something made just for young people. But you’ll need to do a little digging before you recommend a facility. There are literally thousands of groups that could treat your parent. You’ll need to ask questions before you pick one.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends asking about:
- Science-based treatments. Can the team cite research that backs up their approach?
- Tailored care. How much does the treatment program vary from person to person? How does the plan change with time?
- Length of service. It takes time to shift behaviors. How long does the program last?
- Support groups. Your parent needs to find a new community to relate to. How do 12-step groups factor into the program you’re considering?
Identify a few programs before you reach out to your parent. That way, if the conversation goes well, you’ll have your next step all planned out.
Tips to Help You Discuss Addiction
You know there’s a problem, and you’ve identified a potential solution. How in the world do you talk about it?
Your first step: Relax. You’ve been talking with your parents for years, and you have a wellspring of love and support to draw on. Addiction won’t change that.
But this is a delicate conversation, and you’ll want to get every detail just right. To make it happen:
- Practice. Don’t improvise. Figure out exactly what you want to say.
- Plan ahead. Choose a time when you know your parent will be sober. Hold the talk in a private place.
- Focus on observations. Start your sentences with “I think” or “I feel.” That will keep you from making sweeping, harmful statements you don’t really mean (like, “You always do this.”).
- Push for treatment. Help your parent understand that treatment works. Explain what you’ve learned.
- Showcase support. Your parent needs your love now more than ever. Make sure you explain how much you care about your relationship.
If the clouds don’t part and birds don’t start singing after your talk, don’t be discouraged. You might need to discuss this issue many times before your message sinks in. Keep at it, and you’re likely to see some movement over time.